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May 22, 2006

Missing out on the party

With admirable understatement, Martin Demichelis said he had 'lost the will to live'. Bayern Munich's Argentine defender or midfielder may be ideally based for the World Cup, but he won't be participating in it.

Instead, Demichelis can join the ranks of the particularly disgruntled watching it on top-of-the-range HDTV widescreen televisions, the slighted professional footballers harbouring grievances. World Cups should, by their definition, be the preserve of the footballing elite but, by dint of nationality, fitness or selectorial whims, they are sometimes absent.

And the Ryan Giggs category, those denied by the qualification process, is inevitably headed by Manchester United's Welsh winger. Like a predecessor on the flank at Old Trafford, George Best, he is doomed to end his career without appearing in a World Cup. This time, the most high-profile absentee is Samuel Eto'o, voted the third best player in the planet in 2006, but deprived of a place by a missed penalty by team-mate Pierre Wome in qualifying.

His absence reduces the shortlist of potential top scorers by one while the triumph of the underdogs in Africa comes at a cost to some of the continent's biggest names. Egypt, African Cup of Nations winners, did not qualify, so there is no Mido.

South Africa, hosts in 2010, will not attend in 2006, so Benni McCarthy is another missing striker. And the tricks of Nigeria's ageing entertainers Jay-Jay Okocha and Kanu will not be on display; there will be no sight of Obafemi Martins' athletic goal celebrations either.

But for Euro 2004, it would have been no shock that Greece failed to negotiate their qualifying group. The tournament in Portugal, however, elevated several journeymen to a status among the most successful players of their generation, with winners' medals that players from Spain, England, Italy and Holland covet.

Theo Zagorakis, Traianos Dellas, Antonios Nikopolidis and Angelos Charisteas will be unable to emulate their heroics of 2004.

The Balkans' other recent success story was Turkey, surprise semi-finalists in 2002. A bad-tempered play-off against Switzerland, however, denies us the presence of the seemingly timeless Hakan Sukur and his coterie of midfield schemers, Hasan Sas, Yildiray Basturk and Emre.

Rustu Recber was one of the top three goalkeepers in the 2002 World Cup; for different reasons, none of that trio of agile excellence may figure four years later.

Brad Friedel brought a premature conclusion to his United States career while Oliver Kahn, though in Jurgen Klinsmann's Germany squad, has lost his place to Jens Lehmann.

Despite apocalyptic warnings by Sven-Goran Eriksson, among others, about the dangers of the workload for leading players, the list of the injured looks rather shorter than in 2002, even if Wayne Rooney could yet be a significant addition to it. One consequence is that managers, particularly those blessed with choice, have been burdened with tougher decisions.

Indeed Robert Pires, cruelly crocked at his 2002 peak, now misses out because of his frosty relationship with France coach Raymond Domenech, as does Ludovic Giuly.

Meanwhile Klinsmann has discarded two-thirds of the midfield who masterminded Germany's unlikely route to the 2002 final, even if Bernd Schneider and Dietmar Hamann were overshadowed by Michael Ballack then.

Marco van Basten, once clinical in front of goal, has displayed similar ruthlessness in ending the international careers of Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert.

With Jaap Stam also consigning himself to Holland's past, there are few survivors of the teams who reached back-to-back semi-finals in the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000. Salomon Kalou, not granted Dutch citizenship, has an altogether different reason for staying at home.

Luis Aragones has prioritised form over pedigree in his criteria for selection. So Fernando Morientes - despite an outstanding record of 26 goals in 43 games for Spain - misses out. A greater surprise is the omission of Valencia's forceful midfielder Ruben Baraja and skilful winger Vicente. With perhaps the greatest strength in depth of any country in the goalkeeping department, Barcelona's Victor Valdes is the odd man out.

With memories of his lamentable Euro 2004 still fresh, it is perhaps not surprising that Italy's veteran gunslinger Christian Vieri has not been granted a third World Cup.

Marcello Lippi could not tempt the peerless Paolo Maldini out of international retirement which, as he may finally be showing his 37 years, could be no bad thing, so the most significant exclusion may be Antonio Cassano, much Italy's best striker in Euro 2004.

Cuauhtemoc Blanco, he of the ingenious hop, has been Mexico's principal forward for the past two World Cups. No longer; he misses out.

Argentina coach Jose Pekerman, meanwhile, has dispensed with the services of the immaculate Javier Zanetti, a rival for Cafu and Lillian Thuram for the title of the best right back of the past decade.

Brazilian right backs helped decide both the UEFA Cup and Champions League finals, which was still insufficient to earn either a trip to Germany.

Sevilla's excellent Daniel Alves and Barcelona matchwinner's Juliano Belletti (indeed, Sol Campbell will be the only scorer from Paris who is on show in the World Cup) were omitted in favour of Cafu and Cicinho.

Given the roll-call of Brazilian talent, it is inevitable that they have the longest list of prominent absentees though, in Manchester and Leeds respectively, surprise will be limited that Kleberson and Roque Junior are unable to defend the crown they won four years ago.

Rivaldo, Julio Baptista, Marcelinho, Marcos and Ewerthon join them on the sidelines.

And while a seemingly suicidal Argentine ponders a World Cup in his adopted home without him, he should spare a thought for two men who know exactly how he feels.

France's Nicolas Anelka and England's Phil Neville have both completed an unwanted hat-trick. In contention for a place in their respective squads in 1998 and 2002, they have been ignored for a third time.


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